In the earliest centuries of Buddhism, statues of the Buddha were not used. Instead, Buddhist art consisted of images symbolizing the Buddha and his teachings, such as the lotus, the Wheel of the Law, the Bodhi tree and the Buddha's footprints.
Eventually, the Buddha image became one of the most popular representations in Buddhism, but these early symbols remain important and are frequently used to this day. They are especially important in Theravada Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka and Thailand.
As Buddhism spread, Buddhist symbolism was enriched by the cultures it came into contact with. This is especially true of Buddhism in Tibet, which has developed a rich symbolic tradition. The central symbols of Tibetan Buddhism are the Eight Auspicious Symbols, known in Sanskrit as Ashtamangala (ashta meaning eight and mangala meaning auspicious). The Eight Auspicious Symbols are printed on Tibetan prayer flags, incorporated into mandalas and thangkas, and used in other forms of ritual art. Another important symbol is the Wheel of Life, a symbolic representation of the universe as understood by Tibetan Buddhists.
Other important types of symbolism in Buddhism include colors, especially the five colors of white, yellow, red, blue and green, and symbolic hand gestures called mudras.The articles in this section explore these Buddhist symbols, providing information on their history, meaning and use in Buddhism today. (For an introduction and quick guide to Buddhist colors, see our Chart of Buddhist Color Symbolism.)
The Buddha lived around 6th century BCE. Still, Buddhist symbols began to appear from around 3rd century BCE only. These symbols were basically aniconic and did not have Buddha images as symbols. It was only in the 1st century CE that the Buddha was started to be represented in human form. Various other symbols came up later specially from Tibetan Buddhism.
Since Buddhism originated in India where Hinduism is a predominant religion, many of the early symbols in Buddhism are also found in Hinduism. The meaning of these symbols, however, are not necessarily same.
The Buddha was never comfortable with the idea of people worshipping His image. As such, initial Buddhist art represented the Buddha in form of symbols. These symbols include the Eight spoked Wheel (discussed below), the Bodhi Tree, an Empty Throne, a Lion and the Buddha’s Footprint. The last one was the the first that gave way to the later representation of the Buddha as a human.
The Bodhi Tree
The Bodhi Tree as a symbol for the Buddha is quiet understandable. It was this tree in Bodh Gaya that the Buddha sat under for meditation after wandering for six years and achieved enlightenment. Bodhi in Sanskrit and Pali language means enlightenment. Bodhi tree became an obvious symbol for the Buddha also because tree worship was widely prevalent in India at that point of time.
The throne is symbolic of the royalty to which Siddharta Gautama belonged initially as well as the dominance He achieved over the spiritual world later in his life. The throne is usually seen with the dharmachakra and bodhi tree on the top. At the base, symbols such as lion and deer can be seen in few cases.
The Begging Bowl
The story of the begging bowl goes that a little before the Buddha reached enlightenment, a woman by the name of Sujata offered Him a bowl of milk rice. The Buddha, at that point of time, was practising austerity and therefore eating very less. However, He realised that without food, He will not have the energy to continue on his path to enlightenment. Therefore, He took some milk rice. As soon as the Buddha attained enlightenment, He discarded the rest of the food that was left.
The begging bowl, as a symbol, is therefore indicative of an immensely important Buddhist principle – to find a balance between extreme austerity and complete attachment. The begging bowl also stands for the monk’s way of life which requires him to roam around and live off what is being given to him by the common people.
Traditionally, the footprints of the Buddha indicated towards the physical presence of an enlightened being on the earth. The story associated with this symbol states that prior to his demise, the Buddha left behind an imprint of his foot on a stone near Kusinara.
Today, footprint of the Buddha is an extremely important symbol in Buddhist countries around the world. These footprints are usually depicted with toes of equal lengths. The sole carries distinguishing signs like that of Dharmachakra or the 32, 108 132 characteristic signs of the Buddha in a checkboard pattern.
2) The Eight Auspicious Symbols
The Dharma Wheel is one of the earliest and most important symbols in Buddhism. The symbol refers to the story in which post the Buddha’s enlightenment, Lord Brahma descended from the heaven and asked Him to teach by offering a Dharmachakra.
The Dharma Wheel is a symbol of the Buddha’s teaching of the path to enlightenment. The Buddha is known as the Wheel turner and as per some Buddhist Schools, He turned the Dharma Wheel few times. The first, to which all the Buddhist agree, was when the Buddha preached the five sages at the Deer Park in Sarnath. It is because of this that you will quiet often find a deer on each side of the Dharmachakra. The later turning of wheel account are not always same. They vary, however what is concluded from this is that the dharma wheel needs to be turned thrice for a student to understand dharma.
The Dharma Chakra has eight spokes that stand for Eight Fold Noble Path. These spokes have sharp edges that are believed to ward off ignorance. The shape of the wheel is round which conveys the completeness and faultlessness of the dharma teaching. The spokes stand for wisdom, the hub for discipline and the rim for concentration. Discipline is extremely important in meditation, similarly concentration is of utmost significance to hold everything together.
Lotus is the symbol of purity of body, speech and mind in every form. A lotus has its roots in mud (samsara), the stem grows above the water and the flower blooms above the water. This sort of growth is quiet similar to the growth of being from worldly materialism to enlightenment. The practice of Buddhist teachings elevates the mind from the worldly existence and leads it to enlightenment. In esoteric Buddhism, the hearts of being resembles an unopened lotus which blooms only when the Buddha’s virtue develops within. An open blossom stands for full enlightenment whereas a closed blossom indicates a scope for enlightenment. The Buddha is depicted seated on a lotus thereby signifying his complete enlightenment.
- White Lotus – White Lotus stands for complete mental purity and spiritual perfection (bodhi). A white lotus is usually shown having eight petals that stand for noble eight fold path of the good law. This lotus is found in the heart of the grabhdhatu mandala and is also connected with the White Tara. White stands for the perfect nature of the White Tara.
- Red Lotus – Red Lotus is symbolic of the original nature and purity of heart. It stands for heart that is full of love, compassion and passion. Accordingly, the Red lotus is the flower of Avalokitesvara or the bodhisattva of compassion.
- Blue Lotus – The Blue Lotus stands for conquest of spirit over senses. It is symbolic of wisdom, knowledge and intelligence and without doubts it is the flower of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. The blue lotus is represented as partially opened bud and in contrast to the red lotus, its centre is never visible.
- Pink Lotus – This lotus is associated with the historical Buddha and is therefore the most important and supreme lotus. It is generally meant only for the highest deities.
- Purple Lotus – Purple lotus, as a symbol, is restricted to only few esoteric sects. The flower can be shown in full bloom or in a bud and could be supported by single, triple or a quintuple stem. Also, the flower can be shown in a cup or on a tray as a symbol of homage.
Right Coiled White Conch
As per its name, the Right Coiled White Conch is coiled on the right side and stands for the deep, widespread and mellifluous sound of the Dharma teachings. This sound stirs up being of different nature and urges them to come out of the darkness of ignorance to achieve their own as well as other’s welfare.
The umbrella signifies wealth and royalty. This is because possessing an umbrella was itself a sign of prosperity. Moreover, one also needed to have a person specially to carry it. Apart from wealth and royalty, the umbrella also symbolises activities that are conducive for moral well being. These activities keep a human being protected from harms like like illness, harmful forces, obstacles etc and enable them to enjoy the results. It is just like the umbrella that protects being from strong rays of sun.
The Victory banner stands for the conquest that Buddhist teachings have over the negativities of the world. It also symbolises the triumph that one’s own and others body, speech and mind achieve over the sinister forces restricting overall development. The victory banner is quiet often seen on the roof tops of the Tibetan monasteries.
Just as a fish in the water is completely fearless of drowning in the ocean, similarly all living being practising dharma are unafraid of going down in the ocean of suffering. Also, just as a fish freely swims through the water, an individual practising dharma is free to choose his rebirth. In this sense, the Golden fish stands for fearlessness and spontaneity.
Auspicious Drawing/ Endless Knot
This symbol in Buddhism indicates towards the interdependence of religious doctrine and secular affairs. It signifies that everything is a part of web of karma and connected to other parts. The drawing also stands for the merger of wisdom and passion as well as the infinite wisdom of the Buddha.
The vase of treasure is symbolic of tremendous wealth that Buddhist teachings offer for spiritual upliftment. The vase also stands for long life, richness, prosperity and all the positive aspects of this world. A certain practice in Buddhism also includes purchasing and storing of vases in places like monasteries for the purpose of yielding wealth.
More Buddhist Symbols
Stupa, as a symbol of Buddhism, stands for the enlightened mind of the Buddha. Apart from this, they are also a symbol of five elements – square base stands for earth, the round dome for water, the cone-shape for fire, the canopy for air and the volume of the stupa for space.
This is quiet well known symbol in Hindu religion. For Buddhists, usually, the swastika stands for the feet or the footprints of the Buddha and marks the beginning of the texts. In Tibet, Buddhists use the swastika to add beauty to their clothes. In China and Japan, the swastika is a symbol of plurality, wealth and long life.
Vajras consist of nine, five or three spokes. They can either be peaceful or wrathful vajras. The upper sets of spokes of the five spoked vajra stand for five wisdom – mirror like wisdom, wisdom of equality, wisdom of individual analysis, wisdom of accomplishing activity and wisdom of sphere of reality. The upper sets of spokes in a nine spoked vajra symbolise the Buddha of five families with four mothers in between. The lower spokes here stand for the five wisdom and four desires of love, compassion, equanimity and joy.
Unique to Tibetan Buddhism, this symbol always contains the sacred mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum (hail the jewel in the lotus). This mantra is carved outside on the prayer wheel and also stored inside written on numerous pieces of paper. The prayer wheels are cylindrical in shape and can be both small and big. The small ones can be carried in hand while the larger ones are fixed to the gates of monasteries or around stupas A single turning of the prayer wheels is considered equivalent to reading the sutras that are stored within.
The Buddhist Flag is a pretty recent symbol and was designed to mark the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon in 1880. The creator of the flag was not one, but two people – Mr J R De Silva and Colonel Henry S Olcott. The flag was officially adopted as the International Buddhist flag in the World Buddhist Congress of 1952.
The flag has five colours in stripes – blue (universal compassion), yellow (the middle path), red (blessings), white (purity and liberation) and orange (wisdom). The flag, is today, used by the Buddhists of around 60 countries, specially during the celebration of Vesak festival.
- Symbolic Hand Gestures
- Eight Offering Symbols
- Water to cleanse mouth or face - symbol of positive causes that lead to positive results
- Water to wash feet of enlightened beings - symbol of purification
- Flowers – symbolises generosity
- Incense – symbolises moral ethics
- Light – symbolises stability and clarity of patience
- Perfume –symbolises perseverance or joyous efforts
- Food – symbol of samadhi
- Musical instruments – Wisdom
- Eight Lucky Articles or Eight Bringers of Good Fortune
- Mirror – Dharmakaya or Truth Body of the Buddha. Also represents Right Thought
- Curd – Right Livelihood
- Durva Grass – Symbol of long life. Represents Right Effort
- Wood Apple or Bilva Fruit – Right Action
- Right Coiled Conch Shell – Right speech
- Vermilion/cinnabar – Right concentration
- White Mustard Seed - Understanding
- Precious Medicine – Right Mindfulness
- The Seven Jewel of Royal Power
- The Precious Queen – represents feminine pole
- Precious General – Wrathful power to subjugate enemies
- Precious Horse – stands for rising above the materialism
- Precious Jewel – represents wealth and power. Also symbolises wish granting jewel
- Precious Minister or Householder – Minister stands for the Buddha’s wisdom; householder stands for lay community
- Precious Elephant – Strength of mind
- Precious Wheel – same as Dharmachakra